Deconstruct Your First Line Writing Exercise

 

Step 1: For each of the following first lines, rate on a scale of 1-5 the degree to which it makes you want to read the next line. In each case, note down why–or why not.

1. I searched for sleep curled up in my quilt–the one made for me at my birth by my paternal grandmother’s own hands.

1 — 2 — 3 — 4 — 5

2. If half of all marriages end in divorce, how long does the average marriage last?

1 — 2 — 3 — 4 — 5

3. Mike always teased me about my memory, about how I could go back years and years to what people were wearing on a given occasion, right down to their jewelry or shoes.

1 — 2 — 3 — 4 — 5

4. When my father finally died, he left the Redskins tickets to my brother, the house on Shepard Street to my sister, and the house on the Vineyard to me.

1 — 2 — 3 — 4 — 5

5. When the lights went off, the accompanist kissed her.

1 — 2 — 3 — 4 — 5

6. Upon waking this cold, gray morning from a troubled sleep, I realized for the hundredth time, but this time with deep conviction, that my words and behavior towards you were disrespectful, and rude and selfish as well.

1 — 2 — 3 — 4 — 5

7. Tal stretched out his hand and pulled himself up onto the next out-thrust spike of the Tower.

1 — 2 — 3 — 4 — 5

8. I was never so frightened as I am now.

1 — 2 — 3 — 4 — 5

9. Watch your step.

1 — 2 — 3 — 4 — 5

10. In the fleeting seconds of final memory, the image that will become Burma is the sun and a woman’s parasol.

1 — 2 — 3 — 4 — 5

11. Through my binoculars, I could see this nice forty-something-foot cabin cruiser anchored a few hundred yards offshore.

1 — 2 — 3 — 4 — 5

12. He plunked two ice cubes into the glass and submerged them with Johnny Walker Black.

1 — 2 — 3 — 4 — 5

(1) Sullivan’s Island by Dorothea Benton Frank

(2) The Saving Graces by Patricia Gaffney

(3) The Dive from Clausen’s Pier by Ann Packer

(4) The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter

(5) Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

(6) Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks

(7) The Seventh Tower: The Fall by Garth Nix

(8) Affinity by Sarah Waters

(9) The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber

(10) The Piano Turner by Daniel Mason

(11) Plum Island by Nelson DeMille

(12) Jitter Joint by Howard Swindle

Follow-up work: What is the intrigue factor in your opening line? Can you say? Do others agree? If not, choose a new opening line.

Conclusion: Try this at your next critique group session or chapter meeting of your writers’ organization: Ask everyone to bring in two opening lines: their favorite of all time, and the first line from their current manuscript. Mix them up in a hat. Read them aloud and ask people to raise their hands if they want to hear the next line.


This creative writing exercise came from The Breakout Novelist by Donald Maass

 

When you read this book, you will learn:

  • How to develop an exciting plot that sets your novel apart from the competition
  • The basics of character development and characterization
  • How to establish a sense of time and place
  • How to create conflict and tension and why it’s important

Learn more about The Breakout Novelist!